Federal and state ministers, police and Aboriginal art industry representatives will meet in central Australia next month to discuss ways to stamp out carpetbagging – the unethical treatment and exploitation of Aboriginal artists.
The minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said the meeting would look at “enforceable solutions” including possible changes to the law.
“I would be very keen to amend the relevant legislation because we do have to protect a unique art style,” Wyatt said.
In November reports surfaced of elderly Aboriginal artists being “kidnapped” and forced to paint for a dealer in Alice Springs. Wyatt asked his National Indigenous Australians Agency to urgently investigate.
The agency’s advice, obtained under freedom of information legislation, said Wyatt and the arts minister, Paul Fletcher, could “send a strong message that the Government is taking this longstanding issue seriously”.
It noted that the Northern Territory government had already given clear support for “national efforts to protect Aboriginal artists and to strengthen the Indigenous Art Code”.
The voluntary code, established in 2008, is designed to protect artists by getting dealers to commit to treating them fairly and honestly. Sanctions can be imposed on dealer members who have acted unethically.
But the code has no power to regulate private dealers who are not members. Wyatt said it was not working.
The NIAA advised that Wyatt and Fletcher had “the opportunity to make a real difference to unethical practices in the Indigenous art industry, especially carpetbagging” by responding to the recommendations of the 2018 report on the impact of inauthentic art and craft in the style of First Nations peoples.
It recommended that Wyatt press Fletcher to take early action to provide additional funding to strengthen the code and to evaluate industry practices. The NIAA advised that a mandatory code should be introduced “if that review reveals few improvements in industry behaviour”.
The agency said it would continue to identify cases of unethical practices and take appropriate action, including by referring to appropriate authorities.
Wyatt told Guardian Australia his discussions with Fletcher had been about “a way in which we can set in place a system that really identifies authentic artwork in the first instance”.
The APY Art Centre Collective, which raised reports of carpetbagging with the minister in a letter supported by dozens of Australia’s most prominent artists, said it was thrilled to have “leadership in regard to this issue, which long overdue for attention”.
“This attention is heartening,” said the centre’s director, Skye O’Meara.
“We are happy to work hard to effect change and secure solutions needed in our industry but we can’t do it without the committed support of government. We look forward to continuing our work with the relevant ministers.”
Wyatt said he was aware of artists being taken away from home to make them paint, and said his department’s investigations had uncovered other unethical practices.
“It’s all of those matters that that group will consider, but it is my intention and that of Minister Fletcher to make sure that we deal with this issue.”